The Deadly Tale of Two Dukes and a Small-Town Beauty Queen
Tara Grinstead vanished in 2005. Two former friends, Ryan Duke and Bo Dukes, are blaming each other.
Forensic investigator Maurice Godwin still remembers the first time he heard the name Bo Dukes. It was February 2017 and Godwin, who had once been tasked with solving the 2005 disappearance of former beauty queen Tara Grinstead, was in Atlanta to promote a 24-episode podcast devoted to her cold case.
He was online when a story out of Ocilla, Georgia—the small town where Grinstead had lived and had last been seen—popped up on his computer screen. The headline said that two men, Bo Dukes and Ryan Duke, had been arrested in connection with the case.
Several days later, when Godwin returned to his home in Fayetteville, North Carolina, he walked into his office, went to his bookshelf and pulled out a three-ring plastic binder. The words “Tara Grinstead Murder Book” were splashed across the front in large, black type.
“When I picked it up, sat down, and went through it, my stomach started churning,” Godwin told The Daily Beast. “I started shaking. I started flipping through my written notes, my cop notes, [for] anything to do with Ryan or Bo.”
Godwin, 61, first began looking into Grinstead’s disappearance in 2006 when her sister, Anita Gattis, hired him as a private investigator. For three years he had interviewed a slew of people in the 30-year-old’s inner circle, as well as those on the periphery, hoping to find some seemingly minor detail that would eventually lead him to the truth.
For Godwin, the big breakthrough never came.
“I went through everything I had, but I was just dumbfounded because I didn’t have their names on anything,” he said of Duke and Dukes, friends who lived in the same 3,500-person town as Grinstead and graduated from the school where she taught.
“I thought about Tara like a daughter. I treated the case like she was my daughter I was searching for… I just sat there and stared out the window, contemplating, just thinking what I could have done differently, what could I have done to find these guys sooner.”
Now, 26 months later, Godwin said he feels Grinstead, who was working as a high-school history teacher when she vanished, is finally getting the justice she deserves.
On Friday, Bo Dukes, a decorated military veteran, was sentenced to the maximum of 25 years in prison for helping to burn Grinstead’s naked body in a pecan orchard back in 2005—after she was allegedly killed by Ryan Duke. Ryan has been charged with murdering Grinstead in a robbery-gone-wrong, and will go to trial on April 1.
“I watched it live,” Godwin said of Bo’s sentencing. “I’m elated.”
The sentencing came just one day after a jury in Wilcox County Superior Court found Bo guilty on two counts of making false statements, one count of hindering apprehension or punishment of a criminal and one count of concealing the death of another.
Jurors sifted through evidence that included testimony from 21 witnesses, photos of human bone fragments found in the pecan orchards and a Georgia Bureau of Investigation recording of a confession from Bo. They took less than an hour to reach a verdict.
Bo, who is also facing charges for an alleged sexual assault and threatening to kill two women with a 20-gauge shotgun in January, did not testify during the trial but did address the court before his sentencing.
“My actions were cowardly, callous and cruel,” he said, turning toward members of the Grinstead family before breaking down in tears. “[I was] more interested in self-pity and self-preservation… I pray for your forgiveness.”
“I failed Tara Grinstead, I failed her family, I failed the local community and I hope these proceedings have given some closure,” he added. “I am truly remorseful.”
Closure, if it ever happens, will have been a long time coming for Grinstead’s family.
The last trace of Grinstead, who was Miss Tifton 1999, was the night of Saturday, Oct. 22, 2005, when she returned home from a party helping young contestants prepare for an upcoming beauty pageant, court documents show.
When she didn’t show up to work at Irwin County High School that Monday, the alarm was sounded. Within hours, a search for the striking brunette was underway—and would eventually make headlines across the country. Friends, family, neighbors and law enforcement scoured the area around Ocilla, posted missing person flyers and offered rewards for any information.
There were few leads. A latex glove found in front of Grinstead’s home that contained a fingerprint and DNA. But Ryan Duke had no criminal record at the time, so no match could be made.
Two weeks after her disappearance, rumors started to spread among Irwin County students that Grinstead might’ve been murdered. Bo and Ryan, who had graduated from the school, had allegedly bragged to friends that they had killed the beloved teacher, laughing about the crime, prosecutors said. Godwin said he never heard about the boasts.
“Chasing leads in this case was like chasing white rabbits down the rabbit hole,” the P.I. said. “I hadn’t been able to move this case forward and neither had the GBI.”
As the case went cold, life for Bo went on—though not without run-ins with the law. In 2006, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was deployed to Iraq in 2009 and Afghanistan in 2012 and was even awarded a number of medals for his service including the bronze star, according to his attorney, John Fox. But in 2013 Bo and his wife pleaded guilty to stealing more than $150,000 from the Army, and he was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison and ordered to pay more than $134,000 to the federal government.
It wasn’t until 2017 that police caught a break in the case, amid renewed scrutiny thanks to the Up and Vanished podcast. Brooke Sheridan, Bo’s ex-girlfriend, told GBI that he had talked about Ryan killing Grinstead and the burning of the body. Soon after, investigators obtained written and taped confessions from Ryan.
“Words are useless, but I’m burdened with the murder of Miss Grinstead,” he wrote, according to GBI Agent Jason Shoudel’s pretrial testimony.
In Bo’s confession, played for the jury, he said, “[Ryan] told me that he had killed Tara Grinstead.”
“I didn’t believe him,” he added, leaning back in a chair and shaking his head. “I thought that he was out of his mind.”
“I asked him exactly what happened, and he told me later that night after everyone was gone he drove through Fitzgerald and he drove to her house and it was late, he used a credit card to get through the front door,” Bo alleged.
“And he strangled her right there, and he moved her body with the truck... He asked me to help him get rid of the body, and I agreed to help him.”
Bo said Grinstead’s naked corpse took two days to burn to “ash.”
“I remember asking [Ryan] several times, ‘Why?’” Bo said in the police interview. “He would never tell me.”
In January, the investigation took another twist. Ryan Duke recanted his confession to GBI, blaming his admission on drugs. He didn’t murder Grinstead, his lawyer contends. It was Bo.
“I’m not going to sit here and say I did something I didn't do,” Duke said during a recorded jailhouse phone conversation with a friend after his indictment. “I never hurt no one. I never put my hands on a woman in my entire life, man. I never will.”
Ryan’s attorney, Ashleigh Merchant, said during a February bond hearing that the entire case was built on “an inconsistent statement from someone who was under the influence of drugs.”
“We’ve got the wrong person in custody, judge,” Merchant said. “It’s the wrong person.”
But Grinstead’s longtime best friend, Maria Woods Harber, said she believes prosecutors have it right: Ryan killed her and Bo helped.
“I never understood how someone could live this long knowing what they’ve done and never say a word,” Harber, 42, told The Daily Beast. “To destroy her body like that, it breaks my heart. I know it happens all the time. I know this stuff happens to other people too. But this was my person. It makes me sick, so sick.
“I felt like I was trying to keep her alive,” she said of the long wait for answers “I still had a lot of hope. I never really mourned her until now. This has been so unsettling.”
Harber often revisits her memories of Grinstead—the late night sleepovers where they would read love letters from their boyfriends, long car rides where they’d run out of gas and pinch pennies to fill up the tank, the gifts they exchanged.
“She knew I loved Barbies, so she always bought me one for my birthday—even when I was 30,” Harber said. “The last thing she ever gave me was a Barbie.”
“I was supposed to be at her house that night with my daughter,” Harber added, her voice trailing off as she thought back to that weekend in 2005. “I woke up Saturday morning with a virus and I couldn’t go. That’s been a very, very hard struggle for me, wondering what would’ve happened if I had been there.”
Before Bo’s sentencing Friday, Grinstead’s stepmother, Connie Grinstead, told the court she could not wrap her head around how Bo could commit and conceal such a heinous crime.
“For over 11 years [Bo] watched,” she said. “He did nothing. He just went on living his life not caring about the pain [he caused us.] He knew she was never coming back.”
“He tried to make sure there would be nothing left of her,” she continued. “What kind of person does that to another human being? He underestimated her family and her friends and the fact that we were never give up… His selfish, evil acts have hurt so many people and have changed our lives forever.”